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DR-CONGO: U.S. Congress Moving to Track “Conflict Minerals”

Danielle Knight

WASHINGTON, May 15 2009 (IPS) - In an effort to stem the flow of money from mineral mines fueling the brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the U.S. Senate is pushing ahead with new bipartisan legislation that would force U.S. companies to track and disclose the country of origin of minerals used in common electronic products.

“Without knowing it, tens of millions of people in the United States may be putting money in the pockets of some of the worst human rights violators in the world,” said Richard Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, “simply by using a cell phone or laptop computer.”

Durbin, along with Senators Sam Brownback, Republican from Kansas, Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, and Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, are sponsoring the Congo Conflict Minerals Act that would require U.S. companies selling products using tin, tantalum or tungsten, to disclose the country of origin of the materials to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

If the country is the Democratic Republic of Congo or neighbouring states, the company would need to disclose the mine of origin. The legislation would also require the State Department to closely monitor the financing of armed groups in mineral-rich areas of eastern Congo. Similar legislation is currently being drafted in the House of Representatives and is expected to be introduced later this year.

While the prospects for the bill are unclear, lawmakers and human rights groups are optimistic that the legislation will pass in some form this year given the bipartisan support of the bill.

So far, the electronics industry has been tepidly supportive of the legislation. When asked for comment, Michael Petricone, a spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association, one of the leading electronics industry groups, said the technology industry shared the lawmakers’ concerns and looks forward to working with the bill’s sponsors.

“Both individually and collectively, technology companies have been working to increase supply-line transparency,” said Petricone, “and enable more effective tracking of metals used in electronics.”

Several companies have policies on minerals from the DRC. Motorola, for example, bars suppliers from selling them Congolese coltan. But human rights groups say companies do not independently verify this claim down the supply chain.

Human rights activists who have long called attention to how “conflict minerals” mined in the war-torn DRC are sold by rebel groups to purchase arms welcomed the legislation. But they encouraged lawmakers to include even stronger enforcement provisions.

“It’s an important first step,” said David Sullivan, research associate with the non-profit Enough Project. “But companies should be required to have an independent audit of their supply chains in order to ensure that armed groups were not involved.”

Years of unrest have plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo. Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled across the border into the DRC, as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front conquered the country. The conflict has resulted in an estimated 5.4 million deaths over the past decade.

According to a recent study by the Enough Project, the three main armed groups responsible for the violence in the region also control much of the mineral trade. These armed groups profit from the multi-million-dollar mineral trade by forcibly controlling the mines and exacting bribes or taxes.

The “conflict minerals” – tin (cassiterite), tantalum (coltan or columbite-tantalite), and tungsten (wolframite) – are moved from Congo to East Asia where they are processed into valuable metals needed for electronics products. This link between armed groups and the illicit mineral trade was also documented by a United Nations panel of experts in December 2008.

The biggest use of tin worldwide is in electronics, as solder on circuit boards. According to the recent Enough study, Congolese armed groups earn about 85 million dollars a year from trade in tin. Trade in tantalum, which is used to store electricity in iPods, digital cameras, and cell phones, earn the armed groups about 8 million dollars. Tungsten, which is used to make cell phones vibrate, earns about 2 million dollars a year.

In February, human rights groups asked 21 major U.S. electronics companies, including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell and Nokia, to voluntarily sign a pledge – which goes further than the proposed legislation – to support an independently verifiable system that would trace the supply chains of the key minerals used in electronics products fuelling the conflict in eastern Congo.

While none have signed on to the pledge so far, Sullivan said he was encouraged that more than half of the companies did respond and were willing to engage in dialogue. “But it is clear,” he said, “that it will take the engagement of activists and consumers to help keep the pressure on to ensure that all our electronics products are conflict free.”

After a U.N. panel of experts detailed the involvement of the mineral supply chain that led back to Rwandan rebels, the Belgium-based minerals merchant Traxys announced it would stop purchasing tin ore from the DRC. The U.N. report said that in 2007, Traxys purchased tin ore and coltan from four Congolese companies that buy from one of the mines controlled by one of the armed rebel groups.

The U.N. and human rights groups are not calling for a ban on export of natural resources from the DRC. Yet the company’s complete withdrawal from Congo underscores concerns by some U.S. Agency for International Development officials, who worry that increasing restrictions on minerals from the Congo could simply push companies out of the region, and therefore endanger the livelihoods of thousands of small-scale miners and discourage private sector investment.

While the Barack Obama administration has not commented on the legislation, non-profits are hopeful the new administration would support it as part of its new approach to Congo. The administration is still reviewing its Congo policy.

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